Retired professor keeps teaching with the help of a feathery friend
In August, Betty Jean Craige retired from UGA. After 38 years, the University professor of comparative literature and director of the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts was ready for a change.
“I wanted to retire before I deteriorated in front of my students,” she says, smiling. “It was a race against time!”
Craige hasn’t lost her passion for education. She’s no longer in the classroom, but she’s still teaching. And she has a partner—Cosmo, her 10-year-old African Grey parrot.
Last year Craige published the memoir Conversations with Cosmo: At Home with an African Grey Parrot. The book details how Craige’s relationship with Cosmo began as an exploration into language acquisition and turned into something more profound.
“I got Cosmo thinking I’d have a hobby,” Craige says. “What I got was a housemate, and a good friend.”
“I find myself arguing with this little feathery person that’s six inches tall.”
Like most African Greys, Cosmo was 1 year old when she spoke her first word, “bird,” quickly followed by a sentence, “Cosmo is a bird.” By the age of 6 she had expanded her vocabulary to include more than a hundred words and two hundred phrases. She also learned to play jokes, like imitating a ringing telephone and announcing “Telephone for bird!”
These days Cosmo and Craige have conversations like the following, included in Conversations with Cosmo:
Cosmo: Cosmo is a birdy! Cosmo has feathers.
Craige: Yes, bird has feathers.
Cosmo: Bird has feathers. Cosmo is a bird.
Craige: Mary is a dog. Mary has fur.
Cosmo: Mary has fur. Mary is a doggy. Woo woo woo woo.
Cosmo’s facility with English made her a perfect subject for Erin Colbert-White (MS ’09), a graduate student in psychology who wanted to explore language development for her master’s thesis. With Craige’s blessing she recorded video of Cosmo speaking in various contexts, analyzing how Cosmo vocalized in each. There was some trial and error—during early shoots the camera wasn’t zoomed in enough to see Cosmo’s beak moving, and Colbert-White wasn’t able to distinguish between Cosmo’s and Craige’s voices, which sound very similar.
Craige and Cosmo interact with students at the Freedom to Grow Unschool in Hull. Visiting schools and retirement communities with Cosmo gives Craige a chance to educate people about the intelligence and emotional lives of animals.
In addition to serving as a research subject, Cosmo is something of an unofficial ambassador for the animal world. For years Craige has taken her to visit schools and retirement communities. Cosmo particularly enjoys being around children.
“When Cosmo hears children, Cosmo laughs and says, ‘Cosmo wanna poop.’ And the children laugh at ‘poop,’ and then Cosmo says ‘Poop!’ and the children laugh some more. And then she rings the phone,” Craige says. “She really shows off for children.”
Cosmo has her own website and more than 4,700 Facebook friends (search Cosmo Talks). In December Craige began writing “Cosmo Talks,” a column for the Athens Banner-Herald, a project that allows her to reach a large audience and explore topics like animal behavior, language development and environmental issues by using Cosmo as a starting point.
“I really want for people of all ages, but especially children, to know that other nonhuman animals have feelings and ideas and thoughts and can feel happiness and pain and that sort of thing,” Craige says. “The younger the child is when the child understands that, the better a citizen of the biotic community he or she may be.”
Cosmo wears a lot of figurative hats but her most important role is at home, where she is a lively companion for Craige and her two American Eskimo dogs. Cosmo chases the dogs, investigates the contents of drawers, tells jokes to get the attention of dinner guests and converses constantly with Craige.
“Sometimes I have two dogs barking, a bird barking and my cell phone barking,” Craige says. “I’m not sure whether to answer the phone or check for a burglar.”
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